By Nell Bernstein
Courtesy of

The sexual life of our elders is something we younger folks shudder to imagine (and I confess to being guilty)—whether it's an aversion to thinking about what goes on behind a parent's closed bedroom door, or horror at the notion of Viagra in the medicine cabinet.

This willed ignorance about the sexuality of those who, somehow or other, managed to beget us, continues all the way to the nursing home, it turns out—sometimes with heart-rending consequences.

A recent study by a team from Kansas State University includes a subtle, yet poignant, example. A married couple had moved into a nursing home room with adjacent hospital beds. One spouse had a condition that required him to elevate a leg, and the beds had been placed so that the leg was on the same side as his spouse, which made it hard for them to hold hands. Staff members didn't see this as a problem, and told the couple, essentially, to live with it.

Slate offers an even more extreme example. Bob and Dorothy, both of whom suffered from dementia, fell in love in an assisted living facility. When Bob's son walked in on his 95-year-old father in flagrante dilicto, he demanded staff separate the two, and ultimately moved his father to another facility. Heartbreak ensued, as did the rapid physical and psychological decline of the graying Romeo and Juliet.

Why all the suffering? Because Bob's son couldn't bear to think about it.

Next Page: 53% of elderly still sexually active [ pagebreak ]While we're not thinking about it, our elders apparently are. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the majority of those 75 to 85 years old—about 53%—are in fact sexually active.

The Kansas State researchers observed impediments to physical intimacy in nursing homes as basic as shared rooms with only a flimsy curtain for privacy. But the biggest obstacle was simply that staff, like the rest of us, weren't prepared to acknowledge sexuality among the elderly.

The most common reason offered for restrictions on sex in nursing homes is the conundrum of Alzheimer's and dementia. Are those afflicted able to offer genuine consent? Who decides?

We squeamish kids—although we may have legal decision-making power in some cases—are arguably the last ones who ought to be making decisions when it comes to the sex lives of our parents (remember how we felt as teenagers when they tried to butt into ours?). The Kansas State researchers are advocating for federal guidelines, and some elder advocates are now recommending that part of getting one's papers in order should include a sexual power of attorney.

This seems like a pretty good idea to me, although frankly, I think I'd make a lousy candidate for the job of sexual trustee. Were my own divorced parents to move to retirement communities and luck into late-in-life romance, I imagine I'd be thrilled for them. But that's about as far as my imagination is willing to take me. If dementia entered the picture, and a sticky situation were to arise...well, I'd be more than happy to pull the curtain, and leave the decision-making to, say, a duly deputized second cousin.

But that's not going to happen if I can't even bring myself to broach the subject in the first place.

Certainly, when the time comes for our parents to move into a nursing home or assisted living community, the list of things to talk about—money, location, what to do about the house—is long enough as it is. But if we're going to treat our parents the way we wanted to be treated as, say, sexually nascent adolescents—as full human beings with needs and desires, capable of making choices and forming deep connections—it may be time to think about having "The Talk."


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